You are currently processing an exchange. Remove Code Cancel Order

Jump to:

This production of 1776 asks audiences to deconstruct the mythology surrounding America’s founding fathers. It draws attention to the contradiction of men demanding independence as they withhold it from women and people of color. This essential paradox is highlighted through casting: seeing women, trans, and non-binary performers, and performers of color in these roles is an immediate and visceral means of demanding that these historical truths be confronted. But there are less noticeable changes as well. A line from Abigail Adams’s “Remember the Ladies” letter has been added to the script, and Robert Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved “body servant” and the brother of Sally Hemings, appears in this production as a non-speaking character. In the context of this production, Abigail Adams and Robert Hemings are representative of the people who were not heard or considered during the founding of the United States of America.

Abigail Adams and Women in the Revolution

Abigail Adams was not present in Philadelphia during the convening of the Second Continental Congress, but she remained privy to its going-ons through letters from her husband, John Adams. Authors Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards used their correspondence as a way to include her in the text. When she appears onstage, she is a figment of John’s imagination, giving voice to her letters, and a dramatic tool for mining John’s inner monologue. In this production, the addition of an excerpt from one of her most famous letters frames Abigail as a revolutionary in her own right. It reads:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. 

This letter is often cited as an early piece of American feminist writing, for valid reasons. Though Abigail would not have considered herself a feminist (the term was first used in English in the 1890s), she was unusually independent for a woman her time, and she and John shared an uncommonly egalitarian marriage. Abigail took on many untraditional duties while John was away: she managed the household, staved off debt, and hired laborers. She even purchased property in John’s name, because there were limits to a woman’s legal agency, even amidst war and revolution.

In spite of Abigail's plea to John for more equity for women and her ongoing advocacy for women’s education, she was not always consistent in her support for all women. Race and adherence to traditional feminine presentation mattered to her. Biographer Woody Holton points to her critique of English women’s “masculine attire” and “lack of softness.” Following a production of Othello she wrote of her “disgust and horrour” in reaction to the “sooty” title character’s interactions with “the Gentle Desdemona.” Abigail is a complicated, spiritual predecessor to the Rosie the Riveter generation, but also contemporary white feminists.

Back to top

Robert Hemings and the Hemings of Monticello

In a scene at the end of Act 1, Thomas Jefferson is in his apartment reciting his draft of the Declaration to himself, as if he’s alone. However, there is a Black teen with him. In a particularly pointed moment, the teen dresses Jefferson as the statesman runs through the words, “All men are created equal.” Though it is unstated in the script, the young man is Robert Hemings, a 14 year old enslaved by Jefferson, and who accompanied him to Philadelphia for the Congress. The wider public was likely unfamiliar with Robert Hemings and the Hemings family when 1776 first premiered in 1969, though there are several primary sources that mention him. Thanks to the scholarship of historians such as Annette Gordon-Reed, people like Hemings — who have been systematically excluded from our history books — are being brought into stark spotlight.

Hemings was originally enslaved by John Wayles, father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Upon Wayles’s death, enslavership was transferred to Thomas Jefferson; Robert was 11 at the time. Wayles was not only Hemings’s enslaver, but also his father - which made Martha his half-sister. These kinds of relationships were not out of the ordinary. Today, it is well-known that Thomas Jefferson fathered multiple children with Robert’s other half-sister, Sally. The Hemings story is well-documented, but because of the “salacious” nature of Jefferson and Sally’s relationship, the reality of the situation has been diluted, its unpleasantness made more palatable – sometimes even framed as romantic – in part because Jefferson eventually freed the children he fathered with Sally. Jefferson did not grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit. Robert’s inclusion in 1776 is a reminder of all the people who looked like him and who, like him, did not get a say in the founding of a country which their labor built.

While the text remains largely the same, this revival utilizes casting to reframe and refocus the story of American independence. At the end of the show, as the delegates sign their names, the audience knows the story isn’t over - there’s still a war to be fought and to be won. For people of color and women, the battle for independence would be even longer, but still fueled by the country’s spirit of independence. Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The 1619 Project, reflected on this complicated patriotism, and it is an appropriate place to leave you to contemplate the American story:

[D]espite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.

Back to top



Adams, Abigail. “Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776.” 4 pages. Original manuscript from the Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Holton, W. Abigail Adams. Atria Press, 2010.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: an American Family. W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.

Hannah-Jones, Nikole. "America Wasn't a Democracy." The New York Times Magazine, 14 Aug. 2019.

Stanton, Lucia Cinder. "Jefferson's Family.PBS.